- Understanding the process requires understanding the system.
The criminal-court system is hierarchical. The higher-up courts exercise authority over the lower courts, and the lower courts are bound by the decisions of the higher courts.
U.S. Supreme Court
The U.S. Supreme Court has the final say on matters of the U.S. Constitution and federal law. It’s comprised of nine justices appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. It doesn’t interpret state laws; however, it may restrict state action to the extent such action is inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution.
Pa. Supreme Court
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has the final say on matters of the Pennsylvania Constitution and Pennsylvania law. It’s bound, however, by decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court to the extent those decisions bear on federal law and they restrict state action. (Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court interpreting the U.S. Constitution provide the minimum standards for constitutional conduct. Any state, however, can provide greater protections under their state constitutions.) The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is comprised of seven justices who are elected.
Pa. Superior Court / Commw. Court
The Superior Court and Commonwealth Court are co-equal appellate courts, but the Superior Court is the appellate court responsible for hearing criminal appeals. It’s comprised of 15 commissioned judges who are elected, and some appointed senior judges. Regarding the Commonwealth Court, it has power to hear certain matters that have a criminal component to them. Both are “error-correcting courts.”
Court of Common Pleas
The courts of common pleas are state trial courts, generally situated in each county, which conduct fact-finding and resolve legal questions in the first instance. Each of the courts of common pleas are bound by the decisions of the appellate courts.
Magisterial District Court
The magisterial district courts are varied throughout each county, and they are made up of “District Judges,” who aren’t necessarily attorneys. Magistrate Courts are not “courts of record.” The decisions from these courts are subject to review by the courts of common pleas. District Judges may only enter findings of “Guilty” or “Not Guilty” when they’re dealing with summary offenses and some third-degree misdemeanors. If they’re dealing with any other offenses (like felonies), then they can only bind those offenses over to the courts of common pleas for resolution, or dismiss them if they find there’s insufficient evidence.
Classification of Crimes in Pennsylvania
|Grade||Maximum Imprisonment||Maximum Fine|
|Felony 1||20 years||$25,000|
|Felony 2||10 years||$25,000|
|Felony 3||7 years||$15,000|
|Misdemeanor 1||5 years||$10,000|
|Misdeamnor 2||2 years||$5,000|
|Misdemeanor 3||1 year||$2,500|
- Understanding the beginning of the process: the Magistrate level.
What happens at the magistrate level depends upon what you’re charged with.
A. Summary Trial
If the only charges you’re facing are summary offenses, like a traffic ticket, then you’re on the path to having a Summary Trial, which is generally prosecuted by the police officer. In this instance, the magistrate can make a finding of “Guilty” or “Not Guilty” and impose a sentence. The burden of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
If convicted, then you may take a Summary Appeal to the court of common pleas, which will hear the case anew, and there will be a record of the proceedings.
B. Preliminary Arraignment & Preliminary Hearing
If the charges you’re facing include any misdemeanors or felonies, then you’re on the path to having a preliminary arraignment and preliminary hearing.
The preliminary arraignment is the place and time where a District Judge determines bond, which is based upon a number of factors. The primary purpose of bond is to ensure your appearance for court. Sometimes the preliminary arraignment happens days in advance of a preliminary hearing—such as when someone turns themselves in on an arrest warrant or they’ve been arrested—or it happens in conjunction with the preliminary hearing.
The preliminary hearing is the first opportunity to test the sufficiency of the evidence, but the scope of the hearing is limited and the rules are stacked in favor of the prosecution. Specifically:
- Hearsay (out-of-court statements) comes in freely. See Pa.R.Crim.P. 542(E)
- The prosecution doesn’t need to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, rather it needs only to make out a “prima facie case”—that is, a minimum showing.
- The evidence is viewed “in the light most favorable” to the prosecution, and it gets the benefit of every reasonable inference.
- Credibility, or who’s telling the truth, isn’t at issue.
- Summary offenses ride the coattails of any offenses held over for court. See Pa.R.Crim.P. 542(F).
From the defense perspective, the preliminary hearing is either (1) the first opportunity to work the case out for a dismissal or reduced charges, or (2) it’s the first opportunity to develop a record for use at trial and to discover details of the prosecution’s case that might not otherwise be apparent from the criminal complaint.
Whether the preliminary hearing is held or “waived,” or whether a case can be resolved at the preliminary hearing, depends upon the circumstances of each case and the players involved. Even if a case is dismissed after a preliminary hearing is held, criminal charges can be refiled at this stage. See Pa.R.Crim.P. 544.
Ultimately, there’s no finding of “Guilty” or “Not Guilty” at the preliminary hearing. The only determination is whether there’s enough evidence for a judge or jury to hear the case in the court of common pleas.
- Understanding “the bulk” of the process: formal arraignment to trial in the court of common pleas.
What happens in the court of common pleas (the trial court), after the preliminary hearing, generally follows this track.
A. The filing of the “Information” and Formal Arraignment.
A criminal “Information” is generally the charging document that’s filed after a preliminary hearing, which puts you on notice of the charges filed against you. This document provides the statutory language of the charges you’re faced with, and it bears the signature of the elected district attorney. It may include new and different charges from those filed in the criminal complaint so long as they’re substantially the same as the charges that were in the criminal complaint. See Pa.R.Crim.P. 560(A)(5). For the most part, the criminal information can be amended by the prosecution all the way up to the start of trial, and sometimes at trial.
The formal arraignment follows the filing of the Information, and it’s generally your first interaction with the trial court. But each county may handle formal arraignment differently. Ultimately, formal arraignment presents the opportunity to be advised of important rights, to enter a plea, and to choose between a bench trial or a jury trial. Also, importantly, time limits are set at the formal arraignment for the filing of motions; however, often times these time limits may be extended. Like all things, of course, such extensions depend upon the circumstances. Some of the types of motions that are usually filed are these:
- Motion to Suppress: a request to throw out or exclude evidence because it’s been obtained illegally.
- Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus: a request to quash the Information and dismiss the case because there was insufficient evidence for the magistrate to hold the case over.
- Motion to Compel Discovery: a request for a court order compelling the prosecution to hand over favorable evidence to you and the evidence it intends to use to prove its case.
B. Pre-trial Hearings/Conferences
Really following the formal arraignment is where a lot of the behind-scenes work is being done. It’s the stage of the case where the prosecution’s evidence is reviewed, independent investigations are undertaken, and legal research is conducted. Throughout, there may be varied court appearances for status or pre-trial conferences, which generally involve scheduling with the court and updating the court about any issues arising in the case. Evidentiary hearings, generally, also happen during this time to address any motions that have been filed with the court.
The trial is the fact-finding stage of the whole process, and it’s markedly different from the preliminary hearing that set off the beginning of the process. Here, many constitutional protections kick into gear, prime among them being the jury-trial right.
If you’re facing charges that are punishable by more than 6 months, then you may choose a jury of 12 citizens (plus 2 alternates) to be the “finders of fact,” who are to determine whether the prosecution has proven its case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” At trial, you have the right to confront the witnesses against you (i.e. no hearsay), to cross-examine them, to present evidence, and to testify yourself (or remain silent if you choose).
You don’t need to have a jury trial, however. You may have a bench trial, where the judge is the fact-finder in place of the jury, or you may opt to have no trial at all and plead guilty instead. Whatever the case may be, you control the major objectives at this stage, which are these:
- To plead guilty or go to trial
- To have a jury trial or bench trial
- To testify or remain silent
As a side note: statistically speaking, trials are a rarity these days because of the plea-bargaining process. Often, those accused of crimes are deciding to take a “plea deal” because prosecutors are willing to drop over-charged offenses that carry serious consequences, and the prospect of taking a plea provides greater predictability and certainty than proceeding to trial.
Consider these recent statistics for 2018 compiled by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania:
Of 171,690 cases processed statewide—
- 113,920 (66.4%) resolved by way of guilty pleas
- 2,527 (1.5%) resolved by way of a bench trial
- 1,732 (1.0%) resolved by way of a jury trial
Only 6.4% of cases (or 11,028) were dismissed or withdrawn.
As the Pennsylvania Superior Court recently observed in Commonwealth v. Snook, 2020 PA Super 51 (Pa. Super. 2020):
Plea bargains play a critical role in the criminal justice system of this Commonwealth: With respect to plea bargains, [t]he reality of the criminal justice system is that nearly all criminal cases are disposed of by plea bargains: [n]inety-seven percent of federal convictions and ninety-four percent of state convictions are the result of guilty pleas. Plea bargaining is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system.
There’s no question that the state of plea bargaining has resulted in innocent people pleading guilty to things they never did, but the process is nonetheless constitutional our courts have said. Therefore, it’s true that it’s frequently not justice that’s done in our justice system, but rather compromises, (or judgment calls) made in the face of risk calculations. In that regard, the system is better thought of as a dispute-resolution system where cases boil down to credibility contests and risk assessments. The ultimate question to be resolved is usually this: who will be believed beyond a reasonable doubt—the prosecution, police, and alleged victim, or the accused?
- Understanding the end of the process: sentencing.
After a conviction is rendered, be it by verdict or plea, the process concludes in the trial court and it may continue on into the appellate courts. This marks the culmination of the case.
Sentencing in Pennsylvania can either happen immediately or within 90 days after a conviction is rendered. The time frame for sentencing largely depends upon the the severity of the crime you’ve been convicted of, and other circumstances, or the need for a pre-sentence report. Once sentenced, however, you may file a post-sentence motion within 10 days and/or a Notice of Appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania within 30 days. (It should be noted, though, that if a post-sentence motion has been filed, the Notice of Appeal need not be filed until 30 days from the trial court’s disposition of the post-sentence motion. Filing the post-sentence motion effectively extends the time period for filing an appeal, but the reasons for a post-sentence motion are limited.)
Generally speaking, in Pennsylvania, sentencing is a matter largely left to the trial court’s discretion, and sentences are informed by two factors: (1) your Prior Record Score (PRS), and (2) the Offense Gravity Score (OGS) assigned to the offenses you’re convicted of. The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing develops different sentencing matrices for the trial court to consider when choosing its sentences. The following link is to the Basic Sentencing Matrix.